Tribals yearn for a place under the sun

By Soma Basu

NEW DELHI, JULY 10. Inside the air-conditioned premises of the U.N. building here on this summer day, India was lauded for being on track to cut poverty by half by 2015. The occasion was the launch of UNDP's annual Human Development Report assessing the progress of each country based on an index of social parameters.

Barely a few metres away, poor tribals from across the country had gathered in the sweltering heat. Unaware that the Government was taking credit for alleviating their state of poverty, they were out there to assert that their command over natural resources was non-negotiable.

Alas, each was oblivious of the other's action. Secure in the comfort of flashbulbs, smiles and handshakes, the Union Minister for Information and Technology, Mr. Pramod Mahajan, underlined the importance of IT and biotechnology in narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor.

On the other side, defying the odds were 100-odd tribal communities, networks and alliances of institutions and individuals fighting for the natural right of a tribal, as enshrined in the Constitution.

Ironically, the Fifth Schedule, comprising the basic structure of the Constitution, envisages that the land in Scheduled Areas shall always remain with the tribals. The natural right of command over resources of the community is an inviolable right. Yet, tribals are forced to ponder today whether Schedule V exists for them and whether they are in a position to protect and safeguard their lives.

It is precisely this concern that brought them to New Delhi to articulate their plight in the spate of liberalised and deregulated economic development. The lot is not opposed to development but the issue of community ownership over industry has again brought them at the crossroads.

The Government's obliterated attack on Schedule V, leading to a gradual erosion of an adivasi's right over `jal' (water), `jangal' (forests) and `zameen' (land), is a crucial issue which needs to be defended collectively. There are over 80 million adivasis in the country, of whom 10 millions have already been displaced and rendered destitute, according to a survey of the National Campaign Against Fifth Schedule Amendment (NCAFSA), an alliance of a dozen voluntary groups.

The lack of a national tribal policy has made the poorest sections of society poorer. States have executed various developmental projects, particularly those based on the use of natural resources, in gross violation of Constitutional provisions. A recent example was the disinvestment in BALCO through sale of 51 per cent shares to the Sterlite group, transforming BALCO into a private company thereafter. But no one raised the issue of the natural right of tribals over the resources in the area, which is the quintessence of a 1997 Supreme Court judgment in the Samata case banning the private sector from running mines and industries in tribal areas.

In elite political perception, a tribal does not exist, nor is he a party in the BALCO deal. And this could well be a trendsetter; this worries a majority of the adivasi population. BALCO, the pride of the adivasi-dominated Chattisgarh belt, has starkly demonstrated how economic power can be concentrated in few hands and if the Fifth Schedule is amended, as proposed by the Government, to legalise disinvestment in public sector undertakings, it will only mean an all-out assault on tribal land and rights. These issues brought the tribals together under the NCAFSA to protest the transfer of their lands to non-tribal and private agencies. During their two-day stay here, a delegation called on the President, Mr. K.R. Narayanan, and the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Mr. Dileep Singh Bhuria.

A protest convention against the Schedule V amendment was also convened, expressing serious concern over further impoverishment of the poor by weakening their rights over natural resources. But only reports talk of their uplift. No one listens to them or understands their unique culture. Land is the essence of their very existence, yet it is being snatched away from them.

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Referred by:Mukundan CM
Published on: July 11, 2001
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